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(NECN/NBC News: Chris Clackum) - Federal agents say the crime of cyber-crooks stealing your tax refund has suddenly gotten worse. The real bad news is that there's only a few ways to prevent it and not much can be done if you become a victim.
ID thieves have found a weakness in the IRS' tax return procedure.
They know full well that returns filed electronically don't immediately require the all-important W-2.
Maneesha Mithal of FTC Privacy & ID Protection said, "When you file your tax return online, you don't have to actually file your W-2 electronically. So, they can make up the payroll information in order to get a tax refund in your name."
That's why the tax refund you'll soon be filing for with the IRS has become such a popular target of identity thieves.
ID protection specialists at the Federal Trade Commission say in the last two years that stealing someone's tax identity has become the fastest growing form of ID theft.
Mithal said, "And, in fact, the number of tax identity theft complaints that we've gotten in the last year have almost doubled!"
It all starts with a thief getting your social security number somehow, then filling out online the phony info on wages, leading to what privacy experts call a near-hopeless situation.
Privacy Expert Bob Sullivan said, "The truth is if an identity thief has your number and your address, and they're clever, you very well could be a victim and there's not much you can do to prevent it."
That's why the FTC is launching a campaign this week, urging consumers to first and foremost protect their social security numbers.
Mithal said, "So if you get a jump on the identity thief by filing your tax return first, you can get your refund first."
Sullivan said, "If it's a race you want to beat the criminals to getting your tax return in, right?"
The IRS has added staff to help, but only after a tax filer figures out they're a victim.